Director of Photography (DOP), Bill Butler that is. Part artist, part technician the DOP, or cinematographer, helps create the look and feel of a film.
And that film looks just as gorgeous today as it did over 40 years ago. Bill Butler - who celebrated his 97th birthday last weekend - plays a huge part in that, even more impressive as half of it was shot on or in the sea.
Much of that was shot handheld as well, by Butler, who let his knees take in the roles of the ocean when on the Orca, rather than a costly, cumbersome and time consuming gimbel.
Butler also helped develop cameras that allowed essential filming close to the water and allowed the water to lap the camera - giving that all important shark eye’s view.
Before even stepping foot in Martha’s Vineyard Butler had already worked on such classics as The Conversation and One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. This wasn’t the first time he’d been cinematographer for Spielberg either as he’d also performed the duties on two of his earlier TV movies, Savage and Something Evil. He’d joked with Spielberg that he’d heard he was making a film about ‘a fish’ - the rest is history.
Butler even got to shoot the final shot of Jaws, the exploding Bruce. With multiple cameras set up Butler warned Spielberg that the set up by the special effects crew was taking longer than hoped and with daylight fading it meant the final shot was unlikely to be got that night. Spielberg told Butler that wasn’t a problem, but he was leaving so Butler could finish it. He did and it is now said that Spielberg leaves prior to the final shot is in the can of all his films - call it is good luck charm if you will.
Without Butler’s quick thinking shooting may have continued longer than it did as he saved the film. When we say saved, we mean that quite literally as during the well documented difficult shoot of Jaws the Orca sank, complete with camera and film onboard.
The footage was saved by the film’s quick thinking cinematographer. Butler claimed sea water is similar to saline-based developing solutions, so he got it on a plane with the film in a bucket of water - which is rather apt - took it to New York and developed it. They didn't lose a foot of film.
Alas, Butler and Spielberg have never worked together on a film since, not that Butler hasn’t been busy.
Post Jaws saw Butler work on a varied range of films as cinematographer from Grease to three Rocky sequels, Child’s Play and - back in the water - with the 1996 version of Flipper.
By Dean Newman
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